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Rental scams are on the rise as fake agents target vulnerable renters

Rental scams are increasing, with fraudsters posing as letting agents targeting innocent people simply looking for accommodation in the private rented sector.

  • 5,751 rental scams reported in the UK for in 2021
  • You’re now 23% more likely to be a victim of a rental scam
  • You can avoid scams by working with an agent that advertises on the portals; Rightmove, Zoopla or OnTheMarket
  • If you are looking to rent privately, take precautions and check the listing for any red flags if it’s not on the main portals

Last year, there were 5,751 reports of rental scams nationally, or about 15 a day, up 23% compared with 2021, and the situation does not appear to be improving.

Yesterday, the BBC reported that somebody seeking rental accommodation ‘lost £13,000 in a fake agent scam’.

Like many recent graduates, 22-year-old Eason Lee was keen to find a place to live in London and found intense competition with demand heavily outweighing supply.

But he and his friend were victims of a well-thought out and executed rental scam, costing them more than £13,000.

“I had one week to get a new place,” said Lee, who came to the UK as an international student.

After successfully finding a listing on OpenRent for a two-bed flat in Stratford, east London, the pair decided to view it.

Lee and his pal found a place to rent in Stratford within their price range and contacted what turned out to be a fake agent listing on OpenRent.

The fraudsters operated under a name of a legitimate agency and held two days of viewings.

It later turned out that the flat shown to Lee – as well as other victims – had been booked through online travel agency Booking.com, which is how the fraudsters got the keys.

“I’m pretty sure there were two people who booked out a place when we had the viewings and posed as agents,” Lee said.

After looking around the property, Lee and his friend were sent what they say was a legitimate-looking contract and an invoice.

“I read through the contract, I made sure to ask someone else too,” Lee said. “Before I paid, I made sure to check the agency. There was a website for it. Everything looked legitimate so I didn’t think much about it.”

The pair went as far as checking the Land Registry on the government website to ensure the landlord owned the property.

But they later discovered the scammers had used the property owner’s real name in the documents.

The scammers also used a legitimate estate agency’s company registration number on their invoice.

Because the pair did not have guarantors, they had to pay six months of rent in advance, along with a deposit worth five weeks’ rent.

Shortly after transferring the money to a bank account, Lee received an email from OpenRent saying they had removed the advert due to suspicions of fraud.

In a state of panic, he reached out to the agent, who was still responsive and agreed to meet up to give him the keys. But no-one showed up.

“I walked up to the apartment, rang the bell. Two random guys came out and told me: ‘I think you got scammed’,” Lee said.

“They had booked the place on Booking.com and the reason they realised we got scammed was because they already dealt with couples that came there before,” he continued. “There was another couple that came in with boxes ready to move in.”

Lee reported the scam to OpenRent and his bank, and eventually to Action Fraud, which is the reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Action Fraud told him the case would take 28 days to be reviewed and that it could be passed on the Metropolitan Police to investigate.

Lee said that looking back, there were details he should have noticed, but it was because he was so desperate for housing that he “passed it on”.

“I think you realise as well, when you try to rent a place in London, the moment a listing comes up, you have a two to three-day period until it gets taken by somebody else,” he said.

OpenRent said it was “supporting” Lee “as best we can” by trying to assist Action Fraud to catch the perpetrator and make sure they did not return to use the platform.

It added the platform would try to aid Mr Lee in recovering his funds.

OpenRent’s website states: “When landlords list with us we verify their details and have stringent systems in place to verify their ownership of the property.”

When asked by the BBC to clarify what the verification process is, OpenRent said it was unable to comment further because “publishing any details of security/vetting/onboarding processes puts that information in the hands of people trying to defeat those systems”.

A Booking.com spokesperson said: “While issues like this are exceptionally rare, we always take safety and security very seriously for our hosts and our customers, and have a number of measures in place to ensure peace of mind.

“This includes the ability for hosts to block certain guests if in doubt and any suspicious activity is noted, and the ability for us to block customer accounts to prevent them from making any booking on our platform at all – which we have done in this instance.”

They added: “Property owners who list their properties on Booking.com have to abide by local laws and regulations depending on where the property is based.”